July 10, 2013

From Roger Lass:

Re: Neanderthals may have talked-even contributed to our language, scholars claim (July 10, 2013): I was rather shocked by the amateurishness, or at least eccentricity, of the contents of your piece today on possible traces of Neanderthal Language in modern languages. It’s true there are some traces of contact, but attributing language in the usual human sense to the common ancestor of H. sapiens and the Neanderthals is impossible, as there is in principle no way of obtaining the comparative data that would support it.

It is normally accepted by mainstream historical linguists (though not be certain eccentric outgroups) that language change is too fast and radical for us to obtain, by standard means of reconstruction, any data from a period that distance. The generally accepted view is that we cannot reconstruct any linguistic substance (words, sounds) beyond an impenetrable wall of 6-10, 000 years. That would get us back to around the invention of agriculture, and nothing very interesting has emerged at that date either.

The article reads like a piece of typical science journalism of the worst kind. Usually you choose to report interesting material; this is why I’m surprised at this piece. It is possible of course that your reporter didn’t read the paper in detail or was not technically equipped to understand it. But its position as given there is close to comical.

Roger Lass
Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Historical and
Comparative Linguistics, University of Cape Town
Honorary Professorial Fellow in English Language
and Linguistics, University of Edinburgh


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